Thursday, October 19, 2006


An October Moment...

For months, my mother was beset by a third manifestation in our house that we alternately called Long Coat, the Visitor in White, or simply the Visitor. The Visitor was a visual phenomenon, mostly seen early in the morning or late in the day around supper time. My mom saw it at least a half-dozen times that she can recall. And when I finally tracked down previous owners of the house, it was the one consistent paranormal event that several inhabitants of the house experienced over the previous 50 years (which was as far back as I had been able to trace any living owners or former occupants).

The Visitor first came to call early in our second year in the house. It was dusk--and mom was at the stove, fixing supper. The kitchen was, as I may have mentioned, in the original part of the house--the part built in 1785. The back wall--the wall opposite the breakfast bar that held those pinecones--had a solid old wooden door that opened onto a fairly new concrete porch. The sink was right next to the door and it overlooked a window with a view of the porch, the gravel driveway beyond, and the brick walkway my brother and I had laid between the two just that spring. The stove was adjacent to the sink so my mom was facing the wall when from the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse out the kitchen window of someone loping across the yard from the driveway. By the time she turned fully to look out the window, she had only enough time to glimpse the figure--a tall person, a man, she thought, in a long white coat or cloak--step up on the porch and stand immediately in front of the wooden door, out of view from the window.

My mom waited a beat for the inevitable knock. But none came. Nevertheless, our two dogs, Pilgrim and Mayflower, acted as though someone had just rang a loud freaking doorbell because they came barking and snorting into the kitchen and positioned themselves in front of the door, yipping their furry little heads off. My mom opened the door, but no one was there.

The dogs stood there, hackles up, barking and woofing in the most unsettling way, for several minutes.

The second time, my mom was vacuuming the kitchen floor when she saw the Visitor again, and this time she mistook him for our postman, a tall, gaunt cadaverous fellow who often wore a long, light-colored coat. As he ambled across the grass, my mom was annoyed because it seemed to her the man was going out of his way to avoid walking on the brick walk, and there was a patch of yard between the driveway and the porch that was especially muddy. My mom moved to open the door and tell the postman not to even think of stepping inside her house with muddy shoes. But in the time it took her to slide the bolt and turn the door handle, the Visitor was gone again.

Despite nearly 25 years of ceaseless badgering, BB still insists to me that he never saw the Visitor, but I know for a fact he's lying his fat head off. Once, early on a Saturday morning, we were awakened by an ungodly shriek, followed immediately by an impressive BANG! which itself was followed instantly by the dogs yowling. By the time my mom and I made it downstairs, we found my brother sagging head-first inside the refrigerator, soda cans and condiment bottles oozing their contents at his feet, much the same way that his skull was oozing its contents from an impressive gash in the front of his forehead.

As he later told my mother--after she had falsely promised never to reveal what he said--he had been up early, intent on eating the remains of a tasty breakfast casserole that should have been enough to feed all of us for another couple of mornings. As he was quietly rummaging through the refrigerator for other things to add to his pre-dawn feast--a few English muffins, a pig's worth of bacon, a half-gallon of milk--he had the oddest sensation that someone was in the kitchen with him.

From his hunched position in front of the open refrigerator, he gazed across to the sink. And that's when he saw the head of someone peeking through the window at him. And I mean through the window, as though there were no wall or glass to separate my brother from his voyeur.

BB was so startled he suddenly stood straight up, smashing his forehead into the edge of the refrigerator door, an act which momentarily stunned him and caused him to collapse into the top two shelves of the fridge's cool interior.

He didn't need stitches, by the way, but I'm told it hurt quite a lot. Nearly as much as getting one's pecker caught in a knothole, say.

After BB's encounter, and at the suggestion of my friend Shawn--my best friend from my years of growing up in Kansas--I began to treat the strange occurrences in our house as parts of a detective case that I should attempt to solve. And of course, I was in the presence of a mystery, but not of any kind of mystery I ever wanted to be part of. As a child, I enjoyed crime stories, not ghost stories. Whenever one of my favorite shows, In Search Of..., came on, I learned from bitter experience to avoid any episodes involving ghosts, poltergeists, demonic possession or similar. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this sort of content scared the crap out of me, and not because I had an overactive imagination. Just the opposite, in fact. Thanks to a few renditions of my great-aunt Helen's tale involving her dead husband, I knew that there was some funky unseen shit out there, and I wanted to be a total ostrich about it. Until now.

So when Shawn called a few weeks before school let out and not only finalized his plans to come spend the summer with me, but also suggested I start researching what he began to call "the ghost case," it was one of those smack-yourself-in-the-forehead moments. But for my own childish mental block, I should have thought of this sooner.

I busied myself the next month by beginning research on two fronts: first, I began trying to find more information about the history of the house, the property and the people who had owned or lived on it going back to the Colonial period. Being only 13, it was difficult and time-consuming getting permission to look up rare and archived records at the town library, the county historical society and the county seat (where all property and tax records were kept), and I wouldn't make much progress on that front until much later, when I became involved in the restoration of a local lost cemetery and suddenly had street cred among the county record-keepers and bureaucrats.

On the second front, information was much easier to access. I gave myself a short course on the paranormal, reading anything I could find on "true" accounts of hauntings and ghost encounters. This meant that I became well-acquainted with the works of folks like Hans Holzer, and I also read a lot of crap too, I'm sure. But it was valuable research that gave me a working vocabulary for--and partial understanding of--what was happening in our house.

Which, if you believed the parapsychologists of the day, could be one of a couple of things. Either A: I or someone in the house was manifesting X-Men like mutant psychic powers such as levitation (the practical application of which might be the hurling of pinecones at your brother's ear) or B: I or someone in the house was sensitive to some form of psychic media that had been imprinted on the house and at certain times--not of our conscious control--we were able to playback that media, which might take the form of a vision of a lady in blue, a gentleman caller in white, or a physical disruption that caused chairs and pinecones to move of their own accord. There was also C, which was a combination of A and B. And of course, it was entirely possible that we were all victims of mass hallucination, which even my brother refused to believe after the pinecone incident.

Some adherents believed in D, the idea that there were actually trapped spirits--or fragments of a spirit that became trapped--in a particular place, fated to repeat signal events in some long ago life. The prevailing wisdom was that these manifestations were almost always the result of someone dying in such a sudden and unexpected way that the person in question didn't understand that he or she was dead. A similar theory--Option E--held that whoever was haunting the place had some kind of unfinished business in the world of the living--in the most fictionalized, romantic extrapolations of this theory, that usually meant someone who had hidden a will or a treasure and died without revealing its location; a woman who died in childbirth; or a person whose body had been interred in some unconsecrated way, such that it could not rest until the body was found and given a proper burial.

And, of course, there was always Option F, in which "F" stood for "fucking nuts."

Sometimes, my books informed me, you could communicate with whatever--or whoever--was doing the haunting. Once, when the chandelier in the foyer started flickering, my father, during a rare visit home, spent a good chunk of the weekend checking wiring, installing new electrical switches and changing lightbulbs in a series of increasingly frustrating vertical expeditions involving a rickety stepladder. By evening, he was thoroughly annoyed with the chandelier, and remarked to my mother, "By Jeezuz, if that's the goddamn spook, it better knock it the fuck off or I'm tearing out this Christly chandelier with my bare hands!"

The moment he said this, the chandelier glowed brighter than normal, flickered one more time, then burned brightly for the remainder of my father's visit.

But mostly, I found I could no more communicate with whatever was in the house than I could get the Red Sox to listen to me when I shouted at them on the TV. And of all the strange things that happened in that house, the only one I didn't personally witness was the Visitor.

That doesn't mean I didn't have an impact on him.

Summer arrived, and with it the second half of Detectives, Inc., my friend Shawn. I was excited, not just because it was a chance to spend time with my best pal, but also because we were a kick-ass team who was tough to beat. At least, that's what we liked to tell ourselves.

Shawn, for all his encouragement, arrived at the farmhouse in a fairly skeptical frame of mind. Of the pair of us, he was always the more rational. He had been doing his homework, too, of course, and he quickly came to believe that most ghost experiences could be explained away by scientific means. And it must be said that for all my high hopes, his first vacation with us did little to change his mind, even after everything that eventually happened.

But before stranger events transpired, something else happened one hot July morning, something completely ordinary and pedestrian, and yet it would lead to me to one of the most rattling events of my young life. And it all started with a newspaper.

We were sitting up in the small guest bedroom that sat directly over the kitchen. This room was accessible in two ways: via a small door--and by small I mean 5 feet high and 19 inches wide--set into the back wall of my bedroom; and up the original staircase, a steep rickety affair that sat in the squat, dark passageway between the kitchen and a large pantry.

Shawn and I were sitting on his bed, reading the local paper (their motto: "If it happened today, it's news to us!"). This was not a common occurrence for us, but my mom had promised to take us to a movie that evening if we could decide on one, so we were reviewing our options.

Once we settled on a film, I grabbed the section containing the comics while Shawn read through the local news. It was one of those moments of fate--I would never in a million years call it luck--that caused Shawn to linger on the classified ads, in which he saw two notices for local psychics. The first one was a woman out on the airport road who offered palm readings and "Tarrot cards" [sic] but the second one caused my friend's eyebrows to rise as though attached to invisible hooks.

"Maybe we should ask this person to get rid of the ghosts," he said, and handed the paper to me.

I never kept a copy of the ad, although it ran in the local paper for many years (and may indeed be running still) but it said something like this:

Marsh Road Family Psychics
"The REAL Thing"
Seances Conducted, Exorcisms Done, Ghost Communication
(Y-E-S Psychic Readings Too!)
Spirit Mediums for 50 Years

There was no phone number, only a mailbox number, but as soon as I saw the first two words, I realized with some surprise that I might have heard of this service.

"I wonder if that's the Witch Man," I said.

The Witch Man was, as far as I could gather from the neighborhood kids, the local crazy guy and boogeyman rolled into one. He lived in an old shack out in the marshes, in the wasteland between our little town and the county seat. The marshes were a creepy, dank, smelly pesthole of New Jersey, or so I had always thought whenever we drove through them on our way to another part of the county. It seemed an altogether dead place to me, and so was the ideal place to set up shop if you were part of a family psychic practice, I suppose.

I had never seen the Witch Man myself, but I was assured he was all too real. According the older brother of the kids next door--a nice enough twentysomething named Sid--the Witch Man had come door to door one October, telling the residents of the old, Colonial houses that dotted the neighborhood that he was offering to rid their homes of spirit infestation. The dad next door sent him on his way, but Sid insisted that the Witch Man had spent some time next door--at my house, in other words. And if he had not convinced the owners at that time to let him offer his peculiar brand of pest-removal, he nevertheless lingered long enough to make a scene.

"I was just little when it happened--younger than you," Sid said to me. "And I remember him standing in your driveway, yelling at the people in the house. I could hear him just fine because my room was on that side of the house. He was shouting that there was something right there, right under his feet, and the owners were too stupid to see it."

"What did he mean? What was under his feet?" I remember asking.

"Somebody's body, ba-doi," Sid said, with a note of contempt that suggested there could be nothing else.

Thinking of that exchange, I looked out the window of Shawn's room now, out at the gravel driveway beyond. Where had the Witch Man been standing, I wondered, when he told the previous inhabitants of the house that a body--or whatever--was buried?

Well, of course, if you've ever been a young person in summer, you know there's no way in hell two boys can form such a question without acting on it, especially if one of those boys was me. I suppose we would have gone over to Sid's house and determined within a square mile exactly where on the driveway the Witch Man had been standing when he made his pronouncement all those years ago. But of course, we didn't do that. And in fairness, I had a feeling that if we focused our efforts on the 15-foot strip that sat in view of the kitchen window, we just might find something.

Now, if any of you have ever wondered just how much damage two 13-year-olds can do to a gravel driveway, the answer is Quite a lot. We found a couple of iron rakes and my dad's old Army spade and we dug as though we'd heard there was oil down below. We didn't stop until dusk, when my mom pulled into the driveway and narrowly missed breaking an axle in one of the four-foot-deep sinkholes we'd created.

Seldom have I worked so hard for no money. But it was, I must admit, an interesting day. We discovered many things during our excavation. For example, we learned a great deal about the extent of the root structure of the hedge on the other side of the driveway (which turned brown and died suddenly and mysteriously early that fall). We also learned that, when covered with dirt and bits of grass, a visible portion of metal electrical conduit can easily be mistaken for a leg bone, right up til the moment you pull on it and watch your lamppost shift--noticeably and permanently--to one side.

It was an hour before dusk when Shawn's shovel made a promising clunk in the dirt. He was near the edge of the driveway, ducking under the off-kilter lamppost when his shovel struck home.

At first, I wasn't impressed. "Oh, that's just the big rock I keep dinging with the lawn mower," I said and turned back to my work. I had seen and heard the jutting edge of this stone before, just below the grass-line, and dismissed it quickly.

But Shawn had fresh eyes. He carefully began digging around the perimeter of the rock until he was able to get the blade under and heave. I turned and watched as a startlingly white slab of hewn rock burst from the ground.

"Oh MY GOD IT'S A GRAVE!!!" I informed the entire populace of southern New Jersey.

It took the two of us, but together we got the stone free and once we did, we stood over it, scratching our heads in what can only be called growing puzzlement. If it was indeed a gravestone, it looked like no stone I had ever seen. For one thing, it looked like a stone cube, about three feet long by a foot wide, too small by far to be any headstone I'd ever seen (I didn't know about footstones then, but if I had, I would have dismissed that possibility too. It was too big to be a footstone).

Also--and this was really the confusing part--there was no writing of any kind on any side of the stone, and we went to some grunting pains to check every side. One side of the stone appeared to have been rubbed or worn in some way, but if there had been any engraving, it seemed likely that we'd have spotted it. Just to be sure Shawn, smart guy that he was, had gone in the house to find some paper and a crayon so we could do a rubbing, while I got the idea that maybe this was just some small brick of a larger stone monument, and returned to digging in earnest.

Yeah, that was when my mom showed up.

I'm not saying we didn't get in trouble, and I'm not saying we didn't learn a valuable lesson about flinging dirt too far from holes you're going to have to refill, because boy, we sure did. But my mom most definitely was not as mad as she could have been. Not once she laid eyes on the stone.

"Mother of Gawd!" she cried, her South Boston showing. "I haven't seen one of these since we used to go out to your great-granfathah's at the old stables in Stowe." She bent down there in the gloom and rubbed her hand appreciatively over the worn surface. "Look. This was the top. You can almost see shoe prints."

"What is it?" I asked as Shawn came out with his paper and crayons.

Mom smiled. "It's a carriage step. This driveway was probably the original drive back when the house was first built. Horse-drawn carriages were high off the ground, you know, and this gave you something to step on..." As she said this, my mom trailed off and looked toward the house.

I probably don't have to tell you that it was at this point that my mom realized the carriage step was in direct line of sight with the kitchen window. If you walked in a straight line from that step to the house, you'd miss the brick path my brother and I had so carefully laid.

You'd be walking in the path of the Visitor.

Which sounds kind of exciting to me now, but I have to tell you, at the time, it was a bit of a downer. All that digging and all we found was a step? What would that matter to a ghost? Where the fuck was his body?

The next day, when my mom wasn't watching, I dug a few more experimental feet under where we'd found the step, making up stories in my head about late-night travelers murdered by highwaymen as they alighted from their carriage, but I never found anything remotely interesting. So Sid had been wrong: there was no body in the driveway.

Funny thing, though. After the night we found the carriage step, none of us ever saw the Visitor again.

As unsatisfying as certain aspects of this event were at the time, it clinched a couple of things for me. First: there was apparently some truth to the theories espoused in my books. We may have uncovered only an old carriage step, but it was obviously something that was important to whoever had been haunting it--I'll probably never know why--but in the act of uncovering it, we had evidently done enough to placate the Visitor.

Second: Evidently, this Witch Man, whoever he was, however crazy he was purported to be, had some psychic juice. After all, we never would have thought to dig up the driveway if it hadn't been for him.

Shawn must have been thinking the same thing that night, as we laid in our bed, each of us staring out our respective bedroom windows, down at the bone-white carriage step, which almost seemed to be glowing in the moonlight.

"Here's an idea..." he called from the next room.

"About the Visitor? About the Witch M--"

"Bingo!" he hissed. "You think we could ride a couple of bikes all the way out to this marsh where he lives?"

I shivered for a second at the thought of riding my bike into that steamy, stinking wasteland. "I guess," I said finally.

"I think we should go see this guy tomorrow," he said, then added brightly. "Well, g'night!"

Sure, easy for him to say...

Oooh, I'm looking forward to the next chapter...(fetches popcorn)
aargh, those ... again. I can't wait for the next bit!
Can I just admit that I thoroughly love October story time?! One month just isn't long enough for so much fun...
i'm just imagining you and thomas at a scout camping trip, freaking the poo out of a dozen little boys with these stories around the bonfire. do you tell them as good as you write them?

and for some reason, i'm cracking up at the names "mayflower" and "pilgrim"!! brilliant!!
I could spend all day reading this stuff.
Excellent, excellent story.

But you seem to have skimped a bit on the knothole story.

And like katie, I found much amusement in the dog's names.
Thank you for such a wonderful birthday present (oct 19). Excellent story. Wish we knew who the Visitor was...perhaps we'll never know now that he's fully rested and all.

Love you boy co-detective. Can't wait to hear about the rest of his summer visit.
wow, I haven't been around in a LONG time, mm, and I'm sorry. Especially since I've been missing these October stories!! I just spent an hour or two reading all the spooky moments. Mighty cool storytelling, especially since they're true.
Weird. You'd think knowing the carriage step's significance would be needed to placate the Visitor, or I would anyway. Maybe the amount of effort you went to in finding it was factored in...
In a childish spoiled brat voice: "More!! More!!"
MM, love the tales. Wish you would write a detailed enthralling book of this time in your life. Ssssssspooky..and so entertaining!
Damned if I'd put my pecker in a knothole anyplace spooks were hanging out. You're a braver lad than I was, MM.
Hey! you laid a ghost!

(heh heh heheh. I said "laid.")

PS: my word verifiction for this comment started with "oct."

I know I mistyped verification but I like what i got.
You had dogs named Pilgrim and Mayflower?

That cool story and this is the comment I come up with. Heh.
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